Chop Shop is about a pre-teen Latino kid busting his ass in New York City's Iron Triangle so he can earn enough money to buy his own taco truck that will allow him and his sister to make their own living away from the shady dealings of chop-shoppery. Innocent, well-intentioned, and with a performance by the young Alejandro Polanco that rivals Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun, Chop Shop ultimately feels phony, a fly-by portrait of real destitution that, given a glossy lens and a cute curly-haired protagonist, makes affluent hipster couples feel good about themselves in the art cinema lobby.
This "chic" phenomenon of cinematic storytelling isn't new nor is it unique to movies about immigrants. Heck, the modern druggie film uses such romantic overglamorizations as its bread & butter. You'll see the chic factor on display in Courtney Hunt's recent Frozen River ("white trash chic"), it was all over the excruciating 21 Grams ("nihilism chic"), and it's what makes a total embarrassment out of Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries ("scumbag-fascist chic"). The intention of filmmakers who use the chic factor is to try and help audiences swallow an ugly truth, yet, ironically, this tool only ends up covering-up the truth, glossing over facts and reality for a prettier spoon-fed solution... and critical acclaim.
Unfortunately, the recently released Sundance sensation, Sin Nombre, buckles under the same indie chic conventions by riffing on the classic psychotic/tortured-soul chic in the character of Casper (Edgar Flores). Sin Nombre looks fine enough. Its opening shot of a fall exterior brings to mind the rich photography of Hong Kong cinema, and its nighttime visions of train cars escorting immigrant passengers away from a Honduran hell towards the Texas/Mexico border evokes a dreamlike mood of interstellar transport. But central to the film is the love story of gang-banger Casper and young, fellow-train traveler Sayra (the too cute Paulina Gaitan) and it's all just a little too sugar bear silly.
Much of Sin Nombre revolves around the actions and consequences of the notorious Salvadoran-based gang, MS13. For the "uninitiated", these guys are basically thug-Nazis, and while writer/director Cary Fukunaga certainly portrays them as the trash they are, he still shows an uncomfortable tendency to treat them like your average everyday boy-n-the-hood,... and that, they most certainly are not. MS13 is an international, well-funded, machete wielding crime organization whose tattooed-faced leaders would just as soon step on a baby's head than carry it around as a prop of sensitive complexity the way Fukunaga has gang leader Lil' Mago do so in Sin Nombre.
Sayra ends up falling for Casper like he's Jim Stark after he saves her from certain rape. In doing so - and in concert with earlier scenes that show Casper as a sensitive twink-boy lover - we quickly forget that this MS13 member has a past of murdering people, because, damn... he's just so cute! That tattooed teardrop beneath his right eye takes on a brooding bad-boy symbolism of sadness and seclusion that wipes out the cruel reminder of the crimes he previously committed. Yes, it's true that there are many reformed gang-bangers (including MS13 members) who end up living honorable, decent lives - and who may even become sensitive lovers - but Sin Nombre is simply another mediocre reminder that much of indie cinema is still so immature and an all too often chic magnet.